10 essential pen-friendly Windows apps

Put that slick Surface Pen to work with these ink-happy tools for your laptop-tablet hybrid.

surface pen
Get your pen ready

Forget about limiting yourself to typing and touchpads alone. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, as well as the legion of touch-enabled Windows laptops now available, are built to do far more than your standard run-of-the-mill notebooks. Whether it’s sketching out illustrations, signing documents on the fly, or jotting down quick notes, embracing the Surface Pen and Windows 10’s deep-rooted inking features truly opens another door to enhanced productivity. 

If you want to put that trusty Surface Pen to work, of course, you’ll need an arsenal of ink-enabled apps to unleash its potential. But where to start? Here are some of our favorite stylus-supporting applications in the Windows Store. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re a note-taker, artist, or just like to doodle from time to time. 

fresh paint
Microsoft Fresh Paint

Let’s start with something that came bundled with Surface devices: Fresh Paint. Microsoft took the longstanding Paint app and gave it a, well, fresh look for use with the Surface line and Windows 10. But it’s helpful for more than just random drawing: It's a solid, all-purpose photo editor and useful for anyone who needs to get creative. If you’ve yet to really unlock the potential of the Surface Pen, it’s a great place to start.

scrble
Scrble

With Scrble, you have a free-form canvas for your note-taking and illustrations, with options for a traditional lined-paper background, blackboard, whiteboard, math sheet, or music sheet. It’s pretty basic, without many major bells and whistles, but the pen input is very responsive and the variety of paper options are nice for different needs.

The Windows Store app is free to try, or $3.99 for the full version.

autodesk
Autodesk Sketchbook

When it comes to apps that are purpose-built for graphic artists and designers, you can count on Autodesk. Sketchbook is a professional-level drawing program that's ideal for graphics pros or anyone who needs more power than a simple tool like Fresh Paint offers. Going with a pro membership gets you additional tools and cloud storage, but will set you back $30 per year.

drawboard pdf
Drawboard PDF

If you have a Surface Book, Surface Pro 4, or Surface 3, then Drawboard PDF came installed on your device. But far from bloatware, it’s a really useful PDF application that makes it easy to annotate, highlight, and add other writing to your files. It’s smart enough that you can simultaneosly navigate with your finger on one hand, but then add some ink with the Surface Pen in your other hand. I've made it the default PDF viewer on my Surface, and you're likely to appreciate it as well.

plumbago
Plumbago

Plumbago, a stylus-friendly experimental product from the Microsoft Garage, is like an even more pen-centric form of OneNote. You can free-form write anywhere on the page and divide up your notes into different notebooks, though the interface is far more suited for stlyus strokes than finger input. The app is an ongoing project, so it’s definitely a little buggy in places. But if one of the reasons you were drawn to a touch-friendly laptop was the ability to ink, this is definitely worth checking out.

sketchable
Sketchable

Sketchable reminds me a lot of Paper by Fiftythree, an exclusive iOS app that's focused on illustration and uses clever navigation with gestures. Traversing the app requires more than a stylus alone, as it relies on your finger to navigate the interface, open and close books, and pinch to zoom the content. This app is definitely more geared toward artists with all its paint- and pen-inspired tools.

bamboo
Bamboo

Sometimes you just want the feeling of writing on paper. I really like Bamboo for this purpose. It's especially useful if you want to put your Surface in tablet mode to discreetly take notes during a meeting instead of being that person who annoyingly clicks away on a keyboard.

The app is pretty simple without a ton of advanced features, but sometimes that's all that you need. 

ideament
Ideament

Ideament is a handy little app for your next brainstorming meeting. You can create an idea web and then use text or ink to mark up the contents. I find ink brings a little life to this type of collaboration, which can quickly get stale with business jargon.

I wish Ideament was a little more free-form, as you have to jump through hoops to add new elements to the diagram. But it’s pretty helpful overall, so grab the free trial if you want to check it out. The full version's priced at $2.99.

coloring
Zen

Adult coloring books are all the rage. No, seriously! If you want to find out what all the fuss is about, give it a try on your Surface with Zen. It’s actually quite fun, and can bring you some serenity after a crazy day filled with annoying co-workers, frustrating family members, or both. You can even mix some DIY colors to customize your creations.

The app is free, but you can buy additional sets of books for a few dollars each if you want more art projects to choose from.

snip
Snip

The native screen-grabbing tool in Windows is pretty weak, particularly if you want to capture a shot of a file, then immediately mark it up. Instead, go with Snip.

This Microsoft Garage project is a much better method for saving and annotating screenshots. If you let it, the app can live at the top of your home screen for a quick snip with just a swipe or flick of the pen. You can then mark up the screen as much as you'd like. It's way better than the Snipping Tool, so make the switch.